THE CATHOLIC WORKER, Vol. 14: (6), 4, September, 1947
Alcoholics Anonymous Now 40,000 Strong
J.C.D., Member of A.A.
(Editorial note: The author of this article is an ex-GI, Catholic, 40, member of A.A. and dry nearly five years. As usual in A.A., anonymity is preserved by the use of initials instead of the name.)
In the late winter of 1934, Bill W. was just another super-souse. Through the kindness of relatives he was in a New York City Hospital for alcoholism and narcotic addicts, under medication to head off delirium tremens. Then occurred the instantaneous and vital religious experience known facetiously in A.A. circles as Bill’s “hot flash.” This experience in the mind of a sick man has been, like the Concord farmer’s shot in 1776, something heard ’round the world. Bill’s “hot flash” consisted in the indubitable awareness of God’s presence – and a God-given assurance of His help to remain sober. For six months, Bill attempted to transmit this infused confidence of sobriety into another alcoholic’s soul, without success. In the summer of ’35 he found someone, a drunken doctor. In the next four years they gathered the first hundred members of Alcoholics Anonymous – a slow growth of two a month – chiefly around New York City, Bill’s home, and Akron, Ohio, the home of the doctor S.
In these apostolic days of A.A., the program assumed a definite pattern leading up to the publication of the book, “Alcoholics Anonymous” in the spring of 1939. In the eight years since, the membership of A.A. has risen from one hundred to forty thousand. Today there are over one thousand groups in the U.S.A. and others in Canada, Mexico, Australia, England, Cuba, Bermuda, and one “anzio beachhead” in Dublin Eire, within artillery range of Guinness’ Brewery itself.
Whence this saga of salvaged soaks? The A.A. answer included:
1. The program.
2.The A.A. book, and other literature including a well edited and cartooned monthly magazine, “Grapevine.”
3. The group.
The program consists of twelve suggested steps:
1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives have become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7. Humbly asked Him to remove our short comings.
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
12. Having had a spiritual experience as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
All twelve steps are suggestions only. None is told which steps to work first, nor at what rate of progression. The sole requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to attain sobriety as the result of having a drinking problem.
The A.A. Book
The A.A. book is the four hundred page Bible of the ex-drinking class. The first half has eleven chapters on the disease of alcoholism. Here is the “distilled” wisdom of many bottle scarred veterans with years of combat duty against John Barleycorn. Come ye of the early morning shakes, the palsied hand, the throbbing aspirin-defying noggin, the “reverence” digestive system: read these pages and the twenty-six thumbnail biographies of A.A. case history lushes in the book’s second section. Even within the compass of these “biographies” its clear that alcoholism is no respector of persons. They are rich and poor, young and old, Catholic and Protestant and agnostic, all giving testimony how A.A. brought them out of the hard-sauce fog back to sanity.
The Drunkard’s Dilemma
Comes a time when the alcoholic is faced with a terrible dilemma: to attain permanent abstinence, or go along with the progressive deterioration of alcoholism. For an alcoholic, there is no regaining the status of sociable drinker. Once an alcoholic always an alcoholic. A.A. groups instruct and re-instruct in this harsh truth, which kills the self-deception of the alcoholic that he will some time, some how be a controlled drinker. This is a very cruel truth, akin to the no sugar edict to diabetics or the physical exertion taboo of the tubercular. Most A.A.’s are beaten into A.A. by booze. No alcoholic welcomes his classification “alcoholic.” Nor does e a life sentence to sobriety. But the A.A. group shows an alcoholic how he can attain sobriety twenty-four hours at a time, in a pleasant, sociable, useful way.
The A.A. Group
The A.A. group is an enormous ingredient in the A.A. recoveries. Groups meet at least once a week and vary in size from three persons to forty or fifty. They include young and old, men and women. Meetings last an hour or two, located in homes, stores, rectories, community houses, hotel rooms, lodge halls. The meeting opens with a brief quiet time of recollection or silent prayer. The theme of the meeting varies, but usually includes personal histories of drunks, illustrative taproom dramas, elucidation on some of the twelve steps, and considerable advice to the novices. Though fundamentally serious, the dialogue supplies a full quota of laughs and banter. The A.A. fellowship is not grim but very mirthful. When the Tyro abstainer realizes he is surrounded with his own kind he overcomes his feelings of guilt and shyness and after a meeting or two gives forth uninhibitedly his past and present struggles for sobriety. A secret of; the fine fellowship of A.A. is that each is both teacher and student, both speaker and listener. Education is blended with self expression. Talk is releasing and creative. The weekly meeting which in the beginning seems an obligatory measure soon becomes a gladly anticipated opportunity for growth and friendship. Everybody is both patient and doctor; meetings conclude with the group recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.
Other A.A. Weapons
Besides the three major weapons of the twelve steps, the group meetings and the A.A. book, there are other items of defense against the next drunk. Each A.A. has an A.A. sponsor, as Catholics do in Confirmation. Any day the going is rough and the craving tortuous, the member phones or visits his sponsor. A heart to heart talk generally kills the compulsive urge to drink. New members are urged to carry candy bars because chocolate cuts the whiskey yen. Various A.A. literature is procurable; short pamphlets; reprints of A.A. speeches; and a monthly magazine, “The Grapevine.” In some cities there are A.A. clubs to which members may go; they sit in for cards, talk, or absorb a few coffees and cokes and take recess from the pressure of daily life. Many members, long years drunks, resume their religious affiliations when on the path to sobriety. Catholics, of course, enjoy profound and rich advantages on the spiritual steps of the program because we have all the sacraments, masses, and prayers of the Church to use in maintaining sobriety. Religious differences are never stressed in A.A. The common desperate need for sobriety is is the heart and soul of A.A. We Catholics supply our full share of alcoholics in the U.S.A. and are also a sizeable fraction of the A.A. membership. Through A.A. any Catholic alcoholic can attain sobriety and in good time help others now in alcoholic drunkenness and despair.
Let it be understood, A.A. is not a “cure.” No alcoholic is cured in a final sense any more than any Christian is “saved” in a final sense while alive. A.A. is a way of life whereby sobriety for alcoholics is made possible, and palatable. Every twenty-four hours (or oftener) the A.A. man or woman re-dedicates himself or herself to one more day of sobriety, with God’s help. This daily rededication should be very familiar to, and easy for Catholics who practice it in all walks of ordinary life as well as in the strictest monastic orders. A.A. like the good life is only for those who sincerely desire it. For an alcoholic, A.A. may well be the instrument of his salvation in this life and the next. In A.A. an alcoholic’s recovery chance is better than 50-50. Outside A.A. the individual alcoholic is generally a poor risk, a long shot, a casualty with a slim chance of permanent recovery.
The address nationally is:
The Alcoholic Foundation
Grand Central Annex, Box 459,
New York City 17.
They will answer questions, supply literature, tell you of the group nearest you. If you are an alcoholic, write now. If you are a priest, doctor or social worker, A.A. can supply great resources in your professional work.